'Voyeur': Film Review | NYFF 2017

Courtesy of Netflix
Feels like slowing down to look at a car accident.

Myles Kane and Josh Koury's documentary follows Gay Talese as he researches and writes his controversial book 'The Voyeur's Motel.'

Like many a man, Gay Talese has been undone by sex.

The legendary journalist took a critical beating and saw his reputation suffer with the publication of his 1980 book Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a study of the sexual revolution in America. You would think that would have been enough to scare him off the subject forever, but no. More than three decades later, Talese wrote an article for The New Yorker that he then expanded into a book. Titled The Voyeur’s Motel, it was an account of a suburban Colorado motel owner who spied on his guests for decades. The book received withering reviews and its credibility was called into question to such an extent that Talese himself disavowed it. It’s a career blemish from which the now 85-year-old writer may never recover.

The literary debacle is the subject of Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s documentary Voyeur, receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival before streaming on Netflix later this year. Making the thematic point that Talese and Gerald Foos, the subject of his book, are not so different in their obsessions, the film emerges as a provocative portrait of a journalistic train wreck.

Talese first became aware of Foos’ predilections decades ago when the motel owner, sensing a kindred spirit, wrote to him after the publication of Thy Neighbor’s Wife and related his story. The writer was intrigued enough to journey to Colorado to meet Foos and even participated in one of his nightly voyeurism sessions conducted from a specially built, hidden catwalk over certain rooms. In an incident that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcock movie, they were nearly found out when Talese’s tie fell through a vent, in clear view of the copulating couple who were too busy to notice.

The men’s correspondence continued for decades until Talese finally decided to write about Foos, whose wife knew about and had no problem with his habits. What further fascinated Talese was that Foos, who fancied himself less a peeping tom than a Kinsey-like sexual researcher, kept prodigious notes about his experiences. Meanwhile, Talese’s editor expressed doubts about the project. "You run the risk of it seeming too creepy," she presciently warns the writer.

But even as he was writing his book, Talese was suspicious about his subject’s veracity. "He’s my single source. You’re unwise to have one source," he says. He was particularly disturbed by Foos’ account of witnessing a murder of a young woman in one of his rooms. When Talese tried to verify the story, he was unable to find any police report or other proof of a death.

After the book was published, a Washington Post reporter discovered serious inaccuracies in its reporting. Talese is seen in the documentary getting increasingly prickly with the filmmakers and becoming despondent about the severe blow to his reputation. "The book is down the toilet," he bitterly laments.

Despite its many fascinating elements, the film doesn’t succeed in fully exploring its subject matter. There are many interviews with Foos, including one in which he explains that the first woman he ever spied on was his own aunt, but he mostly remains a bland enigma. And while the documentary provides a cursory account of Talese’s lengthy career, it seems more interested in his dandyish sartorial habits than his psyche. Ultimately, Voyeur feels very much like the book that inspired it. It’s compulsively fascinating, but it doesn’t dig deeply enough below the surface … and it’s creepy.

Production companies: Netflix, Impact Partners, Brooklyn Underground Films, Chicago Media Project, Public Record
Directors-editors: Myles Kane, Josh Koury
Producer: Trisha Koury
Executive producers: Jeremy Yaches, Jeremiah Zagar, Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Julie Parker Benello, Lagralene Group, Ken Pelletier, Adam Del Deo, Jason Spingarn-Koff, Lisa Nishimura, Angus Wall, Linda Carlson
Director of photography: Cris Moris
Composer: Joel Goodman
Venue: New York Film Festival

95 minutes

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